Federal Contracting
October 5, 2023

Protecting Government Workers and Federal Contractors in the Era of Brinkmanship and Shutdowns

The House of Representatives narrowly averted a partial government shutdown this week at the eleventh hour, before funding ran out, during a lot of political theater and “brinkmanship,” which is becoming a more common occurrence on Capitol Hill. However, this reprieve expires in the middle of November. A shutdown that would halt pay for military families, government workers, and federal contractors comes at a precarious time for households that are already struggling financially. But there are ways we can protect our workers and vital government agencies from brinkmanship while assisting them when political leaders gamble on a dangerous game of chicken.

The Growing Problem of Brinkmanship

While legislators posture and bicker to strongarm support for their agendas, essentially holding America’s finances hostage, they put the global economy at risk. These days, it seems less about supporting the will of the people, who appear largely absent in these debates, and more about conflicting cabals duking it out over power. The final minute of the first “Godfather” movie practically haunts this spectacle, with the iconic image of a door closing slowly on the new don’s actual family in favor of his political allies. 

“I will tell you, if I'm sick of it, I can only imagine what the American people are feeling," White House Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young told ABC "This Week" co-anchor Jonathan Karl. "Why go down this road, take us so close?” Why indeed. 

As Tobias Burns astutely noted in his article for The Hill, “A U.S. debt default could have tanked the stock market, delayed Social Security checks, held up Medicare payments for hospitals and doctors, paused government contracts and salaries, and sent everyday borrowing costs skyrocketing.”

“That’s not something you see in other advanced democracies,” said William Howell, a politics professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.

In his article, Burns also cited a 2021 analysis of debt ceiling standoffs authored by Leonard Burman, an emeritus professor of public administration at Syracuse University: “Because the consequences are so dire, this high-stakes game of debt-limit chicken always ends the same way: Congress raises the borrowing cap just before calamity strikes. The theater does little more than waste money and generate a lot of breathless commentary.”

“The shutdown comes at a particularly precarious time for many households already struggling with persistent inflation that has driven up the cost of rent, child care, groceries, transportation and utilities,” NBC’s Shannon Pettypiece emphasized. “At the same time, a string of Covid-era benefits have been expiring, such as the child tax credit, rental assistance and the pause on student loan payments, which are now set to resume in October. To cope, households have been spending down their savings and increasing their credit card debts over the past year.”

A Troubling Trend

The increase in brinkmanship in Congress is a troubling trend. It is important for members of Congress to find ways to compromise and work together, even when they disagree on important issues. Otherwise, the country will continue to suffer the negative consequences of brinkmanship. But why has this risky military strategy become a commonplace political tactic? There are a few possible reasons.

  • Increased political polarization. The two major political parties in the United States, the Democrats and the Republicans, have become increasingly polarized in recent years. This makes it more difficult for them to find common ground and compromise on important issues.
  • The rise of gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing electoral district boundaries in a way that favors one political party over another. This has led to more members of Congress being elected from safe districts, where they are less likely to face a serious challenge in their next election. This gives them more freedom to take extreme positions and engage in brinkmanship without fear of being punished by their voters.
  • The 24-hour news cycle. The 24-hour news cycle and the rise of social media have created a more intense and polarized political environment. This has made it more difficult for members of Congress to resist the temptation to engage in brinkmanship in order to grab headlines and appeal to their base.

The outcome of brinkmanship is a mixed bag. While participants may feel a sense of victory, there are seldom any material wins. “Eleven of the 14 shutdowns to-date have been for less than a week,” Nick Wakeman wrote for Washington Technology. “The longest on record is also the most recent at 34 days, stretching from the end of 2018 into early 2019. Andrew Lautz, senior policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center, sees this overarching lesson from shutdowns – They don’t work.”

Think of any strike. The workers and their unions usually get what they want and most likely deserve. The business leaders who pushed the crisis to its head negotiate a settlement they can live with. Both sides go before the media with tales of “successful outcomes for the parties involved.” Pats on the back all around. Of course, these negotiations could have happened on any given day without the theatrics, egos, and ramifications. 

The problem with work stoppages is that damage increases at exponential levels in terms of lost productivity, halted outputs, economic setbacks, cutbacks in essential services, and more. And there’s other fallout to consider.

  • Economic uncertainty and disruption. When Congress engages in brinkmanship over issues such as the debt ceiling or government funding, it can create uncertainty and disruption in the economy. This can hurt businesses and consumers, and it can also damage the country's reputation. Not counting the contractor workforce, a government shutdown furloughs 850,000 federal employees. Another 100,000 feds work without pay. That also means they can’t contribute to the economy as consumers. 
  • Political gridlock. Brinksmanship can also lead to political gridlock, as the two parties become locked in a stalemate over important issues. This can make it difficult for Congress to pass legislation and address the country's challenges.
  • Damage to the public trust. When Congress engages in brinkmanship, it can damage the public's trust in government. This can make it more difficult for Congress to pass necessary legislation and address the country's problems.

Ways Federal Contractors Can Protect Themselves Against Brinkmanship

Brinkmanship, in the context of federal contracts, refers to the practice of pushing dangerous situations or conflicts to the edge of disaster in order to achieve the most advantageous outcome. Federal contractors can take several steps to protect themselves from the uncertainties and risks associated with brinkmanship:

  • Clear Contractual Agreements: Ensure that your contract clearly outlines all terms, conditions, and deliverables. A well-defined contract can provide a legal basis for your work and protect you from sudden changes or unreasonable demands.
  • Risk Assessment and Contingency Planning: Conduct a thorough risk assessment before entering into a federal contract. Identify potential risks associated with the project and develop contingency plans to mitigate these risks. This could involve having backup suppliers, redundant systems, or financial reserves for unexpected situations.
  • Regular Communication: Maintain open and transparent communication with the contracting agency. Keep them informed about the progress, challenges, and any potential issues that might affect the project. This proactive approach can prevent misunderstandings and foster a collaborative atmosphere.
  • Documentation and Record-Keeping: Document all interactions, decisions, and changes related to the project. This includes emails, meeting minutes, and any other forms of communication. Having a detailed record of the project's history can be invaluable if a dispute arises.
  • Legal Counsel: Consult with legal experts who specialize in federal contracting. They can provide advice on compliance, contract negotiation, and dispute resolution. Having a legal expert on your side can be crucial in navigating complex contractual situations.
  • Diversify Contracts: Avoid over-reliance on a single federal contract. Diversify your contracts across different agencies or sectors. This can reduce your vulnerability to the specific policies or decisions of a single agency.
  • Stay Informed: Keep abreast of political and economic developments that might affect federal contracts. Being aware of policy changes or shifts in government priorities can help you anticipate potential challenges and adapt your strategies accordingly.
  • Build Relationships: Foster positive relationships not only with the contracting agency but also with key stakeholders and decision-makers. Building a strong rapport can sometimes provide you with insights and early warnings about potential issues.
  • Flexibility and Adaptability: Be prepared to adapt to changing circumstances. Federal policies and priorities can change, and contractors need to be flexible enough to adjust their strategies and operations accordingly.
  • Financial Prudence: Maintain a healthy financial reserve to weather unexpected challenges. Having financial stability provides you with the flexibility to handle delays in payments or unexpected expenses that might arise due to brinkmanship.

Supporting Workers During Government Shutdowns

During a government shutdown, federal contractors can face significant challenges, including delayed payments, uncertainty about project continuations, and financial strain. While there are no hard and fast rules or best practices to help federal contractors during a government shutdown, some of these recommendations from experts may help carve out a path to relief.

Advocate for Prompt Payments:

  • Contact Elected Representatives: Encourage local representatives and senators to advocate for prompt payments to federal contractors.
  • Raise Awareness: Use social media and other platforms to raise awareness about the issues faced by federal contractors, urging the government to expedite payments.

Financial Support:

  • Emergency Funds: Establish emergency funds or grants to provide financial assistance to affected contractors.
  • Low-Interest Loans: Work with financial institutions to offer low-interest loans to contractors facing financial difficulties.

Provide Resources and Information:

  • Information Centers: Set up information centers or hotlines to help contractors navigate the shutdown, providing guidance on available resources and support.
  • Legal Assistance: Provide legal assistance to contractors dealing with contract-related issues arising from the shutdown.

Extend Deadlines and Contracts:

  • Extend Deadlines: If feasible, extend project deadlines to accommodate the delay caused by the shutdown.
  • Contract Modifications: Renegotiate contracts to provide contractors with flexibility and financial relief during the shutdown period.

Offer Counseling and Support Services:

  • Mental Health Support: Offer counseling and mental health services to contractors and their employees dealing with stress and anxiety due to financial uncertainties.
  • Career Counseling: Provide career counseling services to help affected employees explore alternative job opportunities if their current contracts are affected.

Collaborate with NGOs and Nonprofits:

  • Partnerships: Collaborate with non-governmental organizations and nonprofits that specialize in financial assistance and employment support to leverage their expertise and resources.
  • Donations: Encourage donations from the community and businesses to support contractors in need.

Encourage Communication:

  • Contractor-Government Communication: Facilitate open communication between federal agencies and contractors, ensuring clarity about the status of contracts and payment schedules.
  • Peer Support: Encourage federal contractors to share their experiences and offer support to each other, fostering a sense of community during challenging times.

Advocate for Policy Changes:

  • Policy Reform: Advocate for policy changes that prevent similar issues in the future, such as implementing measures to ensure contractors are paid promptly during budget uncertainties.

Stay Informed and Updated:

  • Government Updates: Stay informed about government decisions and updates related to the shutdown to adapt support efforts accordingly.
  • Feedback Mechanism: Establish a feedback mechanism to assess the effectiveness of support initiatives and make necessary adjustments.

Be Prepared

The increasingly divisive nature of politics has made bipartisan compromises — a hallmark of efficient democracy — more difficult. And the avoidance of a government shutdown extends only to November 17, when we could once again face dire consequences. Federal contractors and employees are instrumental to the government agencies that keep the country running. Think of the essential services that will be impacted and the personnel who must support them:

  • Law enforcement officers
  • Air traffic controllers
  • National security personnel
  • Military personnel
  • Public health workers
  • Emergency responders
  • Food safety inspectors
  • Border patrol agents
  • Prison guards
  • Air traffic controllers
  • Veterans Affairs employees
  • Social Security employees
  • Medicare employees
  • Medicaid employees

We may not be able to advocate for reform immediately, but we can be prepared and take steps to protect our workers before the next round of debates take place a little over a month from now.

Photo by MIKE STOLL on Unsplash

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